BALTIMORE, May 10 - In an infamous DVD called "Stop Snitching," Baltimore drug dealers threatened to kill anyone who testified against them. On Tuesday, the Baltimore police countered with a DVD of their own: "Keep Talking."
Officer Namhyun Kim of the Baltimore Police Department on Tuesday gave a copy of the DVD "Keep Talking" to a man who asked not to be identified. The DVD is part of an effort to urge residents to report crime.
Officers distributed 600 copies of the video in a drug-ravaged neighborhood of East Baltimore, in a direct response to the makers of "Stop Snitching."
"The men and women of the Baltimore Police Department would like to thank the producers of the 'Stop Snitching' video," Detective Donny Moses says in the new DVD. "In case you didn't know, you actually helped make Baltimore a safer city. If we didn't know before, now we know the faces in the game."
The police DVD includes footage from "Stop Snitching" and says that three people in the video have been arrested, including a man who appeared in it pulling a gun from his waistband.
Officers plan to distribute more copies of "Keep Talking" later this week in violent neighborhoods in the western and northwestern sections of the city and also plan to turn the video into a public-service announcement to be broadcast on local television stations.
The earlier DVD had drawn attention because of the appearance on it of Carmelo Anthony, a National Basketball Association star who grew up in Baltimore. Mr. Anthony has said he was unaware that he appeared on the video. He is scheduled to join Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Wednesday to start a separate anti-violence campaign.
While the police DVD speaks directly to criminals, its message, "keep talking," applies to others as well, said Leonard D. Hamm, the Baltimore police commissioner.
"What we're saying to the community," Mr. Hamm said, "is that we're going to help you solve crime problems so you can live decent lives, so people can sit on their steps again, so people can go to the store without being afraid because a neighborhood's inundated by violence."
The case for the DVD includes anonymous phone tip lines for reporting crime. So, too, do fliers the police are distributing with photos and names of those arrested and the charges against them.
In the neighborhoods where officers are distributing the videos, vacant houses stand out on block after block. When the police are not around, dealers work the corners, selling crack and heroin in a city with one of the highest drug-addiction rates in the nation. The drug trade, in turn, fuels violence in Baltimore, which had 278 homicides last year - a per capita rate five times greater than that of New York City.
The police say that violent crime has declined and that the number of homicides for this time of year has dipped to 83, compared with 93 last year. But they acknowledge that the city faces a daunting challenge in trying to reduce the murder rate, and that rampant witness intimidation hinders prosecution.
Prof. David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the police video was a twist in efforts among law enforcement agencies to communicate directly with criminals. To succeed, Professor Kennedy said, such communication must be accompanied by evidence that the police will back up their threats with action.
"The key is to be credible," he said. By mentioning the arrests of three of the "Stop Snitching" stars in the new video, Professor Kennedy said, the police in Baltimore are sending a strong message "that says, 'Look, there are some things in particular that we won't stand for, and these guys didn't listen, and here's what happened to them.' "
The Baltimore police are also planning to install surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods. They have recently begun shining spotlights from police helicopters onto drug corners, then quickly dispatching officers to try to identify suspected dealers. The department is also considering putting officers with binoculars atop lifeguard chairs in high-crime areas.
The videos heartened some who received them. Michael Booth, 36, an unemployed truck driver who described himself as a recovering addict, said he had known many people who had been killed on the streets of Baltimore.
"I believe that it will make a difference," Mr. Booth said. "Before, it was a case where your life was in jeopardy and you would be threatened and you would be scared if you reported violence. But now you feel like the police will step up to the plate and protect you."
Darlene Adams, 43, a grandmother who said she had seen dealers filming "Stop Snitching," said of the police video: "It will send a message to some, but some will think it's a joke. I pray it will make a difference."
Baltimore's drug dealers asked to keep talking
Copyright © 2005, The Baltimore Sun
This morning, CNN did a story about an underground DVD making its way around the streets of Baltimore. The DVD, Stop Snitching, is hosted by "Skinny Suge," whom local authorities claim is a neighborhood drug dealer. It's basically a low-budget documentary that focuses on what happens to snitches who betray Baltimore gang leaders. "To all you rats and snitches lucky enough to cop one of these DVDs," Skinny Suge tells viewers, "I hope you catch AIDS in your mouth and your lip's the first thing to die." Along with Skinny, we get to meet a host of colorful Baltimore gang members strutting their guns and their bling bling, mixed with more messages about why it's a bad idea to cooperate with law enforcement, unless you want to end up "with a hole in your head."
Thanks to the war in Iraq, we've seen a lot in the press about the way terrorists have taken advantage of low-cost media production tools like iMovie and Final Cut Pro. Just today another American hostage was shown on Al Jazeera, and not too long ago US forces got their hands on a videotape of a battle shot from the insurgents' perspective, probably for use in a pro-insurgency promotional video. The democratization of media production tools means that bad guys, as well as good guys, can use it for their own benefit. But apart from the Baltimore DVD case, I've seen very little regarding the role of video production amongst US gangs. As can be seen in this particular case, citizen's media has been turned on its head, being used to threaten the public from taking civic action, rather than using the technology to catalyze civic action.
How is Baltimore responding to this new trend? They've released their own 90-second video, "Keep Talking," featuring hip-hop music and cops with local street cred to send the message to the community that it's important cooperate with local authorities to get criminals off the streets.
"The men and women of the Baltimore Police Department would like to thank the producers of the Stop Snitching video," detective Donny Moses says in the police clip. "In case you didn't know, you actually helped make Baltimore a safer city. If we didn't know before, now we know the faces in the gang. In fact, three of the people in the video have already been arrested and they won't be coming home for a while."
"We did the video for two reasons," deputy police commissioner Marcus Brown told CNN this morning. "The first reason was to send a message to these thugs that if they're going to wave guns on camera, that if they're going to attempt to intimidate witnesses, if they're going to terrorize the neighborhoods that they're in, that the police department was going to target them, we were going to make them a priority, and that they would end up in federal prison, as they did in this case.... The other reason for putting out the video was so that we could reach out to some of the younger people who may have seen the video. And when they watched the video and see these criminals glorifying their lifestyle, we want to make sure that we put in the sequel that shows the end of what happens with these guys and the end for these guys typically is they're either ending up dead or they're ending up in prison."
I went to the Baltimore Police Department's website to track down the video, but unfortunately it isn't online as of yet. CNN only showed a few seconds of it, but I'd be curious to compare it with the gang-created DVD. From what it sounds like, though, the police's 90-second video won't do much to combat what may be an expanding trend by gang members to use media.
"When I asked a group of six students at Southwestern High School if they had seen the video, five said they had," Gregory Kane of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently. "Two boys said Stop Snitching isn't the only video of its kind, that they're quite common and that they are the only type of movies they watch."
If that's the case, the police better start hiring local kids to counter the gang-produced videos with DVDs of their own. Just let them do it anonymously so they don't get clipped.... -andy
Posted by acarvin at April 13, 2005 01:44 PM
Witnesses often too scared to testify against violent criminals in Baltimore
By Brian Witte / Associated Press
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BALTIMORE -- Crime witnesses in this drug-plagued city are going into hiding -- not only from the criminals, but from the police and the courts.
Afraid that drug dealers will kill them if they take the stand, an alarming number of witnesses in Baltimore are dropping out of sight, forcing authorities to find them, haul them into court and jail them in some cases to get them to testify.
Some witnesses lose their nerve after receiving threatening notes, phone calls, visits or dirty looks. Others get the message from seeing what has happened to other people who testified.
"It's a sad state of affairs," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy.
Witness intimidation is a problem across the country, but Jessamy said it has become a "public safety crisis" in Baltimore, where murderous drug gangs that hold entire neighborhoods in fear have carried out spectacular acts of retaliation, including killings, shootings, beatings and firebombings.
Prosecutors in Baltimore estimate that 35 percent to 50 percent of nonfatal shooting cases in the city cannot proceed because of reluctant witnesses, and about 90 percent of all homicide cases involve some manner of witness intimidation.
Criminals have been employing intimidation more often in the past three years for one simple reason, according to Jessamy: "It works."
The problem has drug dealers and police battling on television and street corners for the public's loyalty.
Both criminals and police have made DVDs to pass around blighted neighborhoods. The drug dealers' two-hour video, "Stop Snitching," warns people they could "get a hole in their head" for cooperating with police. The police DVD, which runs about two minutes, is titled "Keep Talking."
Baltimore has a witness relocation program, but Jessamy said the city does not have the resources to guard anyone for more than 48 hours.
The state legislature recently tried to address the problem by passing a law that allows out-of-court statements to be used in court if they are in writing, if they are given under oath and if in-court testimony is not available because of threats by the defendant.
Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is pushing legislation in Congress for $90 million to set up a witness protection program to help state and local prosecutors across the country.
Mostly because of the drug trade, Baltimore has seen a rise in homicides over the past two years after several years of declines. The number of killings went from 253 in 2002 to 271 in 2003 and 278 last year. As of Wednesday, a little more than a quarter of the way through the year, there had been 72 homicides.
Baltimore has had some dramatic examples of witness intimidation and retaliation.
In January, a community activist's home was firebombed after she helped police fight drug dealers. She was not hurt. A federal grand jury indicted five men.
In 2002 a Baltimore couple and their five children were killed by a drug dealer who set their home on fire after the husband and wife repeatedly called police to report drug dealing. The dealer pleaded guilty in federal court.
Prosecutor Tony Garcia was trying a murder case when he walked outside the courtroom to bring in his next witness, a 19-year-old woman who had seen the defendant take a man into an alley with a gun to his head. The witness had vanished.
"When we finally found her, the family told us she wasn't there, and she was in the house hiding under a table," Garcia said. A judge jailed her for about five months. The defendant pleaded guilty after the prosecutor secured a video deposition from the woman.
In July, an 11-year-old girl and her mother took the stand against a man on trial on charges of killing the girl's father during an argument over a drug deal. Both testified to seeing DeAndre Whitehead, 20, kill the father.
Despite their testimony, Whitehead was acquitted on the murder charge. However, Whitehead was accused of conspiring with a cellmate to kill the girl and her mother to prevent them from testifying. Whitehead got nearly six years in prison last week.
Last September, the city established a detective unit to find witnesses who refuse to testify and haul them off the jail if necessary.
But the program has some kinks to work out: Last week, a witness was brought to jail in the same vehicle as the defendant, who passed a threatening note, said Antonio Gioia, a prosecutor.
Detective Byron Conaway, a member of the new unit, said about 25 reluctant witnesses have been jailed so far. They are usually held for only a few days.
"I can understand a person being scared, but, you know, this is the life we live, so we have to make it as safe as possible," Conaway said.
On the Net:
Office of State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy: http://www.stattorney.org
Baltimore Police Department: http://www.ci.baltimore.md.us/government/police
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page A16
IN BALTIMORE, murders are up and convictions are down. You read that correctly: Even as the city has gained the dubious distinction of having the nation's highest big-city murder rate, prosecutors say that conviction rates in homicide cases are falling. The main cause is that, increasingly, witnesses will not cooperate or testify, often because they are afraid. And no wonder: Since last September seven witnesses have been shot or murdered -- a rate of about one a month. Other cases have been dropped for the same reason, not only in Baltimore but also in Prince George's County. This venomous trend, says the chief state prosecutor in Baltimore, Patricia C. Jessamy, "threatens to bring justice to a standstill."
The state is taking a step in the right direction -- albeit a small step -- by stiffening penalties for witness intimidation and making it slightly easier for prosecutors to introduce hearsay testimony at trials when scared (or dead) witnesses will not or cannot appear. The question is whether more can be done. One proposal is to beef up resources for existing witness-protection measures, such as funds to put up witnesses in hotels or to pay their security deposits if they move. But the fact is that a fund for that purpose in Maryland, administered by the State's Attorneys' Association and replenished by court costs charged to defendants, already seems to provide all the money needed; the fund has never been depleted, and no state's attorney requesting a grant from it has been turned down.
Another idea, which would require the allocation of more money and organizational attention, is to create a program that attempts to replicate on the state level what the federal government does nationally to protect witnesses (usually from the mob): give them new identities and permanent new homes, possibly out of state. That approach would require help from federal authorities, but it may gain appeal as threats and violence against witnesses become the norm in some neighborhoods that combine high crime and low income.
Still, the brainstorming of lawmakers may run aground on cultural realities. Well over half the witnesses in Baltimore who are offered assistance turn it down. Many of them, criminals themselves, prefer to go underground or wait out the threat -- anything to avoid the appearance of cooperating with the authorities, even if it means risking their lives.
Perhaps police and prosecutors should take their cue from a DVD that made the rounds in tough inner-city neighborhoods a few months ago, warning people in violent terms to "stop snitching" to the cops. NBA star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony was seen in the video, though he later disavowed its message. Mr. Anthony, who plays for the Denver Nuggets, and other popular local figures, such as rap artists and movie stars, should be urged to make themselves available for a new series of videos encouraging people to help clean up their own neighborhoods by helping send bad guys to prison.
Sound futile? To the contrary: What could be more futile than having police and prosecutors spend time and money pursuing murderers only to see them go free because witnesses slip from their grasp?
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